Thursday 30 May 2024
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It has been more than a year since the last cultural ‘flare-ups’ took place between Malaysia and Indonesia. Undeniably, the concept of serumpun has always been a major factor underlying the relationship between Malaysia and Indonesia. How far has the concept of serumpun influenced the solidarity of both Malaysians and Indonesians today?


THE word rumpun or serumpun, meaning‘of the same root’ in Malay/Indonesian, is a concept that is principally embraced by both Malaysians and Indonesians, particularly the Malays. History has recorded that the area of what it is now Malaysia and Indonesia was for centuries under the dominions of powerful kingdoms of the Malay race namely Srivijaya, Majapahit, the Malacca Sultanate and other sultanates like Johor, Aceh, Brunei and Gowa. It was not until the advent of colonialism and eventually the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 that the Malay Archipelago was separated into two spheres of colonial dominions.

Malaya and Singapore were placed under the political influence of the British while Sumatra was annexed as part of the Netherlands East Indies. Following independence, British Malaya and British Borneo became Malaysia and the Netherlands East Indies formed  modern-day Indonesia, separating the people of the same rumpun into two different countries. Brunei chose not to join Malaysia while Singapore, 15% of whose population were Malays, separated from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965.

The concept of Serumpun

Despite their respective multi-cultural features, Malaysia and Indonesia are often considered as serumpun as the Malays or people of the Malay race form the bulk of their populations. Both share a number of identical characteristics: both are majority Muslim countries, have somewhat approximate cultural practices and both recognised the Malay language as the national language of their respective nations. As early as the late 1920s, the concept of serumpun influenced the idea of the establishment of MelayuRaya or in English, Greater Indonesia - a consolidation of British territories of Malaya, Sarawak, North Borneo and Brunei with the Netherlands East Indies.

Even though Malaysia and Indonesia are now two separate sovereign states, the concept of serumpun has benefited both countries as they regard each other as ‘brothers in solidarity’.  As key players of ASEAN, the peaceful relationship between these two major members is imperative to ensure stability of this region. However, this intimate relationship is coming under some strain of late.

Serumpun strains?

Since 2009, some Indonesians have protested against Malaysia for allegedly stealing Indonesian cultures such as tari pendet from Bali, the rendang dish from Sumatra, Batik from Java and the Rasa Sayange song from Maluku. In 2010, this problem escalated as Indonesia was not happy with Malaysia claiming angklung as part of its national heritage. This dispute continued up to 2012 when Malaysia was said to have ‘unethically’ recognised the Tor-Tor dance and the musical instrument Gordang Sambilan as part of its own culture.

The anti-Malaysian sentiment was particularly intense in 2009, 2010 and 2011 to the extent that the Malaysian embassy in Jakarta was attacked a number of times and there were also attempts to ‘sweep’ Malaysians off the streets of Jakarta. In addition, there were also intemperate calls for war against Malaysia though they were never taken seriously.

Cultural heritage: Private ownership vis-à-vis public domain

Cultural heritage should not be seen as belonging to a certain country as it belongs to the group of people that practises it. Indonesia is a multi-ethnic country as it possesses a large territory extending from Sabang in Aceh to Merauke in Papua. If Indonesians claim rendang as theirs, then, Indonesians of Papuan origin could also contend that rendang as belonging to them. Clearly the rendang dish is not of Papuan origin.

Indeed, rendang  should be seen as belonging to the people of Minangkabau who populate Indonesia and some parts of Malaysia. Therefore, it is inaccurate to contend that Malaysia has stolen rendang as it so happens that there are Malaysians of Minang origin. It is not culturally wrong for Minang Malaysians to embrace their cultural heritage in Malaysia which is traditionally shared with their Indonesian brothers. The same applies to Reog, the Tor-tor Dance and Gordang Sambilan as there are many Malaysians of Javanese and Batak descent.

At the same time, Malaysia should also be more sensitive in enlisting these cultural heritages as part of its national heritage. It is true that Malaysia and Indonesia share some cultural similarities. However, to avoid future disputes, Malaysia should carefully identify those cultural heritage shared with Indonesia to be described as ‘Malaysian cultural heritage of Indonesian origin’. In that way, mutual respect between these two countries could be inculcated and observed, while upholding the concept of serumpun.

Malaysia-Indonesia relationships: Not to be taken lightly       

As nations that share a number of cultural similarities, both countries should educate their people to understand and embrace the concept of serumpun. At the moment, the definition of ‘Malay’ itself is different in both countries. While Malaysia defines ‘Malays’ to include Bataks, Javanese, Buginese, Minang, Acehnese and other related Indonesian ethnic groups, Indonesia defines ‘Malays’ more narrowly. ‘Malays’ in Indonesia are generally regarded as people of Malay ancestry that inhabit most parts of Sumatra, the Riaus, Peninsula Malaysia and coastal areas in Borneo. This differing definitions of the word ‘Malay’ has to a certain extent contributed to the ambiguity over cultural heritage and the misplaced notion of ‘cultural theft’ alleged against Malaysia.

Indeed, the history of Malaysia could not be separated from that of Indonesia as some states like Negeri Sembilan and Selangor were established by the Minangkabaus and the Buginese respectively who were originally from Indonesia. The Malay Peninsula was also once under the influence of the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit in the 13th century.

In fact, the powerful 14th century Sultanate of Malacca was a maritime empire ruled by Srivijaya princes of Sumatranorigin. Being people so closely related to the sea, these facts show that the people of the Malay Archipelago used to migrate from one place to another within the archipelago long before Malaysia and Indonesia were created subsequent to decolonisation. How could people of the same roots commit cultural theft? These similarities should be observed as an indication of solidarity, not animosity.

The cultural spat between Malaysia and Indonesia is something that should not be taken lightly. It is true that since 2012, this issue on the alleged cultural theft may appear to have slowed down. It should not be surprising if this dispute arises again given their many cultural similarities.

The concept of serumpun should be continuously embraced and observed particularly by the people of the Malay race in in both these nations so that it is not gradually forgotten. More than that, Malaysia-Indonesia relations are unique within Southeast Asia. They have to be properly preserved not only to sustain the special relationship between these two countries, but in a bigger picture, to maintain the political stability of this region.

Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Syariah and Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia and a research fellow at the Institute of Oceanography and Environment, Malaysia. Mohd Hazmi obtained his Ph.D from the University of Wollongong, Australia. Maizatun Mustafa is an assistant professor at the Ahmad Ibrahim Kulliyyah of Laws, International Islamic University Malaysia.

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